Geoengineering: carbon capture or corporate capture?
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By Eric Hoffman and Kate Horner, Friends of the Earth U.S.
June 10, 2011
Dangerous techno-fixes to the climate crisis are getting a lot of attention these days in Bonn. Two blocks away from the climate talks, the Convention on Biological Diversity held a workshop today on geoengineering to discuss definitions, possible impacts and “regulatory gaps.” When the CBD issued a de facto moratorium on geoengineering last year, it seemed like countries were being sensible in recognizing the extreme and possibly irreversible dangers of geoengineering, but meetings like the one held today suggest there is strong momentum to get geoengineering underway quickly.
Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, even told the Guardian recently, “We are putting ourselves in a scenario where we will have to develop more powerful technologies to capture emissions out of the atmosphere…We are getting into very risky territory.” While we certainly agree on one point – the dangerously inadequate cuts in greenhouse gas pollution promised by developed countries puts the world in danger of catastrophic climate change around the world – we totally disagree that letting them off the hook and supporting dangerous techno-fixes like geoengineering is the way forward.
Capturing carbon from the atmosphere is one form of geoengineering – the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems, including systems related to climate. These technologies generally fall under three broad areas: carbon dioxide removal and sequestration (such as ocean fertilization, biochar, and carbon extraction through chemical processes), solar radiation management (such as cloud whitening and covering deserts with reflective plastics), and weather modification (such as cloud seeding and storm modification).
The side effects of geoengineering interventions are unknown and untested but could easily have unintended consequences due to mechanical failure, human error, inadequate understanding of ecosystems, biodiversity and the Earth’s climate, unforeseen natural phenomena, irreversibility, or funding interruptions – to name of few. It is impossible to test the effectiveness of geoengineering, since in order to have any noticeable impact on the climate or global temperatures, the geoengineering project must be deployed on a massive scale. “Experiments” or “field trials” equate to real-world deployment and would violate numerous international treaties as such.
Geoengineering experiments would be conducted by the few wealthy nations and corporations who have the funds and technology at their disposal to do so. One country’s experiments could have devastating effects on other countries and the global climate system. These technologies are already being patented and would be owned by these same actors who would also benefit financially by their deployment. Calls to “capture carbon” seem more like a corporate capture of the UNFCCC process. This is why organizations such as the ETC Group have dubbed geoengineering as geopiracy – it legalizes the piracy of our entire planetary system to benefit a few.
It’s also why workshops like the one held today are so alarming. While we support the moratorium on geoengineering, it will only hold in place until there is “adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities.” Trying to find “transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms for climate-related geo-engineering” is an exercise in futility and a dangerous distraction from the task at hand – reducing harmful greenhouse gas pollution in the countries that cause this problem. Securing real commitments from wealthy countries to reduce emissions is necessary not only for the climate but for the communities affected by toxic air and water pollution associated with fossil fuel production.
So it is disheartening – to say the least – to hear Figueres concede the need for geoengineering technologies. Instead of increasing the political pressure for wealthy nations to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, lower our consumption levels, and use renewable and sustainable sources of energy, it seems as if the head of the climate convention has given up hope and will simply allow a few of those nations to reengineer the climate, the land, and the oceans to theoretically slow down and reverse climate change. The risks of geoengineering are simply too great for it to be seriously considered at a Convention whose purpose is to stop climate change – not to allow one country to try changing the climate on its own.